Tuesday, January 29, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Part I: Resurrection

A compendium of the chapters comprising the first part of E.H.U.D.: Prelude to Apocalypse.
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8

Friday, January 25, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 8

Chapter 8

“People want to give their opinions?  Fine; it's their right.  But as soon as they start throwing bricks, we'll throw back.  We're not here to be passive; we're here to take down the bad guys before they get a chance to f*** with the innocent.  That means I don't worry about who's who.  I go in; I get the job done.”  Shaun Wendleferce finished speaking and dissolved into a young Latina standing in front of a computer-generated background. 
“I don't think I'd want him keeping my neighborhood safe.”  She turned her mouth into a sad half-smile.  “For AmeriNews, this is Maria Ruiz—”
The saving grace was that he hadn't smiled.  He had the presence of mind to keep his face somber and not look like he enjoyed beating all those people.
Any benefit this might have given to public opinion was completely obliterated by what AmeriNews had shown with the interview: a small tag labeling the man as  PPD Officer Shaun Wendelferce,  Major, US Army, Retired.  Those words changed him from a trigger-happy cop beating on rowdy demonstrators to the hammer of government oppression, slamming down on any who questioned the official story on the Defenders.  The situation was made all the worse because, eighteen hours after the attack, there was no official story on the Defenders.
Edgar Latterndale sat on a bench outside of the Oval Office, watching the situation deteriorate on a screen in the opposite wall.
Beside him, Julia Telk sighed.  “This isn’t good…”  Her eyes flicked to the closed doors of the cabinet room.  “How much longer you think they can keep this up?”
Edgar shrugged.  “Who knows?  If they screw up on this, we’re all dead.  But if they don’t hurry up with something, we’re dead anyway.”
“I still just say we admit everything.”
Edgar sighed; that was the option he and Julia had been pushing all morning.  De-classify everything about the real EHUD program, admit their involvement in creating the Defenders, leave themselves at the mercy of the people.  It would likely be better than the treatment they would receive if the Defenders got to them first.
“Can't do it,” Isaac kept insisting.  “You think they'll let us off without serious jail time?”
“They can't put us in jail!” Edgar insisted, again and again.  “We haven't done anything illegal!  Unethical, unconstitutional, yes, but not illegal!”
“Perjury,” someone had reminded them.
The President didn’t listen.  He insisted on labeling the Defenders a foreign threat, on rooting them out, killing them, and coming out looking like the hero.  Only Edgar knew how impossible that would be, and he decided he wouldn't be the one to say it.  Let the stubborn old fool find out for himself what Mistlethwakey was planning.
Not for the first time, Edgar wondered if the stubborn young fool had any idea what the General was planning...
“Alternative...” he found himself saying.
Julia looked at him. 
“We drop the notion of having any claim to the Defenders; that ship sailed the minute Ashleigh lost it.  We treat them instead as an independent entity and deal with them directly, in a First Nations kind of way.”
“No way Isaac goes for that...”
“Forget Isaac.  Charlton will go for it, once Isaac gets impeached or resigns.”
Julia sighed and kneaded her temples.  “Won't work.” 
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then heard an incomprehensible flurry of sound as the door to the office opened and the stout form of Rosencrantz pushed through.
“There's got to be a better way to block eavesdroppers.  I'm getting a headache.”
Julia grunted.
Rosencrantz leaned against the wall under the television and stared at the floor.  “All right, you guys have a convert.  I was looking at some stuff, pre-AmeriNews, And it looks like Philly isn't the only one.  L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, all the big cities are protesting in some way.  Smaller towns, we got local government denouncing us.  Telethepee, Ohio just signed a declaration of secession.”
“So the public is definitely with the Defenders on this?” Julia asked.
“Definitely.  No words from overseas, but it's obvious where the U.N. will be.”
“And Isaac still wants to blame terrorists and ride this out?”
Rosencrantz nodded.
“Fuck this.”  Edgar stood and began walking away.
“Where are you going?” Julia asked, standing as well.
“Home.  Just like last night.  He won't listen; he won't hear me.”
Rosencrantz shuddered at the phrase “last night” but kept himself enough together to say, “C'mon; he's almost got a statement worked out.  Just a little longer...”
Edgar stopped and stared absently at a portrait at the end of the corridor.  “Amanda needs me...”
When he got home the night before, he had found Amanda, still in her blood-smeared dress, asleep in the bed next to Ethan.  He had tried to waken her, to get her out and into her own room.  She resisted at first, and eventually Edgar lay down at the foot of Ethan’s bed, determined to stay with his family even as he suspected that he had lost the right to do so.
Amanda’s stumbling exit from the room woke Edgar an hour later and he followed her into their room, helped her out of her dress, into the shower.  When she was done she sat on the bed, undressed, staring at the wall.  Edgar's instincts told him he should do something to help.  This wasn’t the way Amanda acted; she was an actor, not a reactor.  She was always busy, always ready for something new.  Seeing her completely destroyed by what had happened just felt… unnatural.
At some point he woke up, dressed in clean pajamas, in his own bed.  He found Amanda downstairs, reorganizing the house, giving new orders to the maid, sending faxes and looking over client account files for work.  The slow-motion Amanda from the night before was gone; she looked to be making up for lost time.
“Edgar,” she called as he came down the stairs.  “I’m not going into the office today; I can write grants from home.  I want you to go get Ethan; breakfast is in ten minutes; Dora has everything ready.  We’re going to have a nice family meal, then we’re going out to my parent’s place.  They’re on vacation, and they won’t mind if we use the house.”
 Amanda didn’t stop moving.  She walked to a wall screen, brought up a spread sheet full of figures, tapped at something, nodded, and moved over to a small mound of papers on the dining room table.  “It’s been forever since we’ve gotten out of the city—“
“We’re not in the city—“
“And Ethan won’t be missing anything at school.  It’ll be good for the family to be together.”
She wasn’t making up for lost time.  She was trying to put as much time as possible between last night and the rest of her life.
“Mandy, you know I can’t—“
Amanda stopped moving and stood stock-still, her bathrobe quavering from the force of her deep breathing.  “Edgar.”  The name was ice cold.  “You’re a member of this family.  You’re not a sperm donor, not a pay check, not the goddamn SecDef.  You’re a father, a husband, and you will start acting like one.”
The accusation in her words triggered something; everything he had been holding back flooded in, and everything was swept away until he stood alone, holding that pathetic little pistol against the unknown, a spear against a tank.  His knees gave way, and he slumped against the kitchen island.
Amanda rushed to his side.  “Shh, shh, it's okay, you know I love you, it's okay—”
It wasn’t.  It could never be, not after last night.  The Defenders were Mistlethwakey's tools; how long was it before the General decided to bring them to bear against Edgar?  How long before Isaac found out Edgar's role in last night's events?  Amanda wasn’t safe; Ethan wasn’t safe; the whole world was under the gun now.  And it was Edgar’s fault.  He had failed as a husband and a father; it was too late to try again.
He fought back to his feet, pulled away from Amanda.  “No.  You take Ethan, go where you need to, to be safe, but I can’t go.”
“Edgar, please, your family needs you—“
“No, you need the person you think I am.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll become that person.  But right now, right now I have to be practical.  I can’t be the person who makes you feel safe, I have to be the one who makes sure you are safe.”
“Edgar, please—”  There was a note of last night’s desperation in her voice.
He was still in the East Room, still hearing the shouts, the wet sound of pain.  But now he was doing it, was stepping up to face the creature.  He was more terrified now than ever before, but if he got through this, everything he had ever hoped for would come to him—
“What I do today, I do for us.”  He grabbed Amanda’s arms and forced her to look into his eyes.  “You want me to be a husband?  Let me protect my family; then I’ll be back with you, and I will never leave again.”
Amanda said nothing, and Edgar wished he could be inside her mind, could know what she thought. 
After several moments, Amanda nodded.  “Go.  Fight the fight, face Lemlin again.”  At least she seemed to know what he was thinking.  “But come back to us.”
He leaned down and kissed her.  “I’ll be home for dinner.”
Now, standing outside of the president's office, he checked his mobile.  He'd be back not long after lunch...
“Amanda needs me more than Isaac does.”
Both Julia and Rosencrantz nodded, then turned away from him and reentered the office, accompanied by another bark of incoherent noise.
Edgar made his way across the mansion to where an armored car was waiting to take him back to his own vehicle, but stopped when he heard raised voices in the entrance hall.  He paused and listened for a moment, recognizing the accented voice that dominated the argument.
“We will see him!  He is the one at the center of the claims, and we will hear directly from the man himself!”
It was the Iranian ambassador, Ahmad Mokri, a man Edgar had met in a professional capacity on several occasions.  He might be exactly who Edgar was looking for.
Abandoning his exit strategy, Edgar made his way to the entrance hall.  Moments later he found a small group of well-dressed men and women of varying ethnicities and ages; all were known on sight, although he could only recall a few names.
Ahmad stood at the head of the group, arguing with Elliot Nieman. 
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mokri, but I must stress again that the president is in a very important meeting—”
“This isn’t about his meeting, or even his country!  This is a global issue, and will be addressed as such!”
“I cannot simply—”
Edgar smiled.  If Isaac wouldn’t listen to his own advisers, then a half-dozen irate emissaries should do the trick.... and he would still be home in time for dinner.
“Ahmad!” he called, summoning up as much charisma as he could.
The chief of staff was forgotten as Ahmad rounded on him, a smile beginning to bisect his face.  “Ah, Mr. Secretary!  I'm so glad to see you alive today!  That was quite a display of heroism you put on last night!”
Edgar suppressed a shudder and bowed his head.  “Just doing what anyone would do for their country.”
Ahmad inclined is head.  “I would certainly hope so, yes, but perhaps this country was not in need of your heroics?” 
“Well, until we can find out the truth behind Lemlin’s words, we should give the country the benefit of the doubt.”
Ahmad shrugged.  “Which is why we...” he gestured to the small crowd clustered around him, “are here.”
The chief of staff stepped forward.  “I’m sorry, Ed, I tried to stop them—“
Edgar smiled in what he hoped was a pleasant manner.  Based on Ellie's involuntary shudder, it wasn’t.  “It’s all right.  They have legitimate concerns.  Hell, we all do.  Maybe speaking with the president can help to settle those fears.”
“The president left clear instructions that he wasn’t to be—”
Edgar leaned in close, trying to stretch himself up even half an inch higher.  “Look,” he hissed, “I’m a cabinet member, an adviser to the president.  Specifically, I help him in the defense of this nation.  If that requires helping him through some… negotiations… I will certainly do my best.  So don’t push this, okay?”
Ellie swallowed and nodded.  “I guess if you were to escort the—”
“Can do.”
He turned back to Ahmad’s delegation.  “Ladies, gentlemen, if you’ll follow me; I’ll see what I can do about getting you in to see the president.”
Edgar led them back the way he had come, realizing that no matter how Isaac reacted, he now had important international allies in place for his upcoming promotion. 
Edgar stopped his followers next to the bench he had so recently left.  “If you'll wait here, I’ll see if the President is ready to meet with you.”
Through the door, through ten feet of incoherent, high-pitched babbling, into the small knot of people clustered in front of the desk.
“—would make running this place fucking impossible!  We would have a war on our hands, one we can’t afford to—“
“And if we just stick our heads up our asses, what then?  Huh?  You think they’ll treat us any better?”
“Look, maybe we should just go online, see which idea is the most popular right now—“
“Shut up, Eli!”
Rosencrantz had been wrong; they were nowhere near close to a resolution.
The President noticed Edgar's presence.  “Ready to help us out here, or are you still saying we should sell out?”
The discussion lulled as all eyes turned to Edgar.  “I've reconsidered my stance, yes.  I now say we acknowledge Lemlin and the rest of the Defenders, grant them asylum, and allow them to initiate the Q-bomb.”
“Q-bomb?” Rosencrantz asked.
“Something Fendleton talked about,” the president said, dismissing the questio with a wave of his hand.  “Got the name from an old movie, The Mouse That Roared.  Set up the Defenders as an unassailable super-weapon, and world peace ensues.  This only works, of course—” he glared up at Edgar, “—if they're under our control.”
Edgar shrugged.  “Doesn't matter to me; you won't listen to reason.  Maybe you'll listen to international scrutiny, though.”
“The fuck does that mean?”
“Shut off the voice boxes; we have visitors.”
Before Isaac could protest, Edgar hurried to the door, pulled it open, and gestured flamboyantly to the emissaries waiting outside.  The unintelligible babble was choked off just before the emissaries stepped forward.   
“Mr. President,” he called over his shoulder, “may I present Ambassadors Mokri, Ammanue—”
“Excuse me!” Issac said, lurching to his feet.  “This is a private meeting, and uninvited guests are not...”  He trailed off, glancing from ambassador to ambassador.  “Mr. Mokri,” he said at last, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”
Ahmad inclined his head in greeting, then frowned.  “First, I would like to offer my condolences for the members of your administration who lost their lives in last night’s unpleasantness.”
“I’ll be sure to pass that along to their families.”
Ahmad nodded.  “Secondly,” he paused and grimaced.  “Secondly, I would like to ask you about the validity of Mr. Lemlin’s statements.”
Isaac glared at the man.  “I’m afraid we’re still trying to ascertain that for ourselves.”
Ahmad looked back at the others in his group.  “So you deny his accusations?”
Edgar swallowed and held his breath; outside scrutiny had arrived in the White House and the time for strategy had passed.
The president chewed on his lip for a moment, then straightened.  “While we of course take no responsibility for Mr. Lemlin’s actions, we are putting all our effort into discovering the veracity of his statement.”
Edgar released his breath.
Ahmad nodded, disappointment clear in his expression.  “I thought that’s what you'd say.  I suppose you’ll be clarifying your position in due course?”
Ahmad nodded again.  “Well, before you do, I’d like you to consider some things.  These are not official positions.  Just… food for thought.”  He gestured back at his entourage.  “India, Pakistan, Kenya, Korea, Indonesia, and of course Iran, have all been in discussion, and we’ve come up with some provisional resolutions.  If the United States was responsible for the creation of the Defenders, as Lemlin alleges, we will consider it an unconscionable crime against humanity.  However, we will judge it no more harshly than what many of our own countries have done in times past.  We are willing to work with the United States, to help in any way we can to put this unpleasantness behind us and move on as a species.
“But…” here he paused and glared at Isaac until the president averted his eyes.  “But if we find that the United States has intentions, any intentions of using the Defenders as weapons, in any way, we will respond in kind.  If what Mr. Lemlin says is true, then the Defenders are on the same order of magnitude as nuclear devices.  We have no Defenders, so we will have to respond in kind any way we can.”
The room was dead silent.
“Did you just threaten nuclear retaliation?” the president whispered.
Ahmad laughed, the sound seeming inappropriate under the circumstances.  “Threaten nuclear retaliation?  I did no such thing!  Unless of course this conversation is being recorded, in which case I would love to hear what else is in the recording.”
“I'll take what you've said under advisement.  Good day.”
Ahmad inclined his head once more.  Without another word, he and his entourage turned and left the room.
Edgar closed his eyes.  That had gone about as bad as could be expected.
“Did Bob put you up to this?”  Isaac asked.  “Did Bob think the Defenders would be so much better off on their own?  It would have worked, Ed.  We would have had our own goddamn invincible army, volunteering itself on its own terms, the rest of the world none the wiser.  But Bob just had to put them out in the open, didn't he?”
“Not sure I follow...” 
Isaac sneered and leaned back on his desk, the rest of his cabinet forgotten.  “Doesn't tell you everything, does he?  Back when all this started, he wanted to use the Defenders as rogues to start World War III, let us take out anyone we didn't like, come out as a superpower again.  I was the one who talked the president into wiping them and getting them to volunteer for the military.  Who would argue with us if we just found super-soldiers?”
“I'm fairly certain Bob isn't picking a war.”
Either Isaac didn't hear, or he didn't listen.  “You tell him he's won, all right?  He gets his goddamn war.  We have rogue nations making super-soldiers.  We'll retaliate.”
Julia and Rosencrantz both groaned aloud.  Several others looked uncomfortable.
“Eli!  Get ready, we're going live in twenty.”
Edgar shook his head and left.  He saw now why the General wouldn't work with Isaac any longer.  It would have to be Edgar who fulfilled the plan...
But he had no intention of letting Mistlethwakey pull his strings.

Maria Ruiz sat in the ready room at the AmeriNews D.C. studio, rubbing her head and sipping from a cup of coffee that didn't contain alcohol, if her producer happened to ask.  The entire news office had been going at a frantic pace since last night, with Maria pulled in to cover the various riots, in addition to her role as a political reporter.  She hadn't slept since two nights ago.
She was contemplating a quick nap when commotion at the door caught her attention.  An intern stood there, tablet in hand.  “Excuse me, everyone,” she said, and the haggard reporters swung their eyes her way.  “Just told the Eagle will speak in less than five minutes.  Watch, pick a position, and be ready for on-air.”
Maria groaned, then turned to the small makeup table she had been assigned.  She began unscrewing jars, ignoring the flurry of activity starting behind her.  Forty-five minutes ago: she had been on forty-five minutes ago, for a two-hour block, and was now going back up.  She needed a nap...
Too soon, the sound of the AmeriNews “Breaking Report” music interrupted her thoughts.  She could see the reflection of a tired-looking anchor on the television.  “We have just received word that the White House will be issuing a statement addressing the attack upon President Latterndale and the accusations leveled against him by one Mervin Lemlin.”  He paused for a moment.  “We now go live to the White House.”
The scene changed to a blue curtain, bright behind a dull-grey podium.  Something looked off about it....  There were no flashes of cameras, no general hubbub of a crowded room being picked up by the podium’s microphones.
It took Maria a few moments to realize that the room was deserted, save for the camera operator.
A moment later the heavy-set form of Eli Rosencrantz came into the shot and slid in behind the podium.
“Members of the American public… hello.”  His voice sounded hollow, as if he were speaking from memory without understanding what he said.  “It is with great sadness that I come to you today to speak of the events that transpired last night.  As you are all no doubt aware, at eight seventeen on the evening of September eleventh an unknown assailant, claiming to be deceased Private First Class Mervin Lemlin, infiltrated the White House and proceeded to assault the president, as well as guests and security staff through inexplicable means.  Immediately prior to the assault, allegations were made against the United States military, and the nation in general, that we were responsible for the creation of so-called Defender super-soldiers, such as the assailant himself.”
Rosencrantz paused, clearly shaken.  Maria turned in her seat, seeing that the others in the room had also turned to the television. 
“While we are taking these allegations very seriously, and cannot at this time completely rule out the possibility of some faction within the government being responsible for the illegal and unethical creation of the Defenders, the President, his administration, and the United States as a sovereign whole deny any involvement in these heinous acts.”
The room erupted in yells of disagreement and anger.  Maria tried to ignore the shouts and listen to Rosencrantz.
“It is our firm belief the assailant, as well as other Defenders, if indeed they truly exist, to be the work of foreign agents, intent on destabilizing this government. 
“It is with this belief that we will attempt to come to the truth about this incident and bring to justice those behind it.”  He paused again, giving the camera a thousand-yard stare.  He looked as if he had just realized he was giving a speech on live TV.  “Um… Th-thank you, and good night.”
As Rosencrantz abandoned the podium, the scene shifted back to the AmeriNews anchor, who mirrored the Press Secretary's stare for several seconds before thinking of something to say.
The situation was different in the ready room.
“No, that is total bullshit—“
“Do they really think we’re that stupid—“
“What the hell were they thinking—“
Maria slumped forward, her head resting on the mirror.  She let out a soft laugh, which just for a moment turned into a sob; no chance of a nap now...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Edgar Latterndale rose from the floor, his clothes soaked in blood, and stepped up to the platform. He held up a large pistol and spoke, his voice lost in the dull roar of the ballroom.  Merv Lemlin turned to stare down at Latterndale, looked as if he were about to speak, and then was obscured by a pulsing white circle.
“Shit.”  Alice leaned forward and paused the video.  “Needs to buffer.”
“Nah,” John said, “won't do any good.  Their servers are probably overloaded.”
They sat in John's cubicle, surrounded by five of their coworkers, staring at the video on John's second screen. 
“Ten bucks says their servers crash,” someone called from the back.
“It's not going to crash,” someone else answered, “it's the state channel.  They have enough resources to handle this kinda thing.”
“Not something this big.”  Alice shook her head and leaned back into her chair.  “I still can’t believe this happened.”
Walter, a structural engineer whom John had worked with over a decade ago, scooted forward between Alice and John.  “I heard that it was successful, and the reason it’s taking so long to get an official statement is that they’re trying to find a convincing body double.”
“No, this guy kept his camera on the whole time, and you can see Latterndale getting pulled out.”
Walter shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Just what I heard.”  He sighed. “Damn, it’s just so surreal, you know?  I mean, Kennedy was just a bullet or three, all the theories aside.  But this?  What the hell was this?”
“Just special effects,” John said, refreshing the page in an attempt to play the video.  “They know that whatever happened all the conspiracy nuts’ll over-inflate it, so they’re doing the job for them.  Whatever happened is really embarrassing, and they don’t want anyone to know.”
“Like what?”
John shrugged while he absently juggled a pen.  “I don’t know.  Maybe someone in upper management went nuts and blew up the ballroom.”
“Why—no, how would they get everyone together in less than a day’s time to film a cover up that is going to be leaked by AmeriNews?” Alice asked.
“Body doubles.”  John lost control of his pen and watched it roll across the floor.
“Alright,” Walter said, “for the sake of argument, let’s assume that everything was real.  This guy really could levitate things and read people’s minds and stuff.  You think he’s telling the truth?”
“You mean about being made by us?”
“Yeah.  I know we’ve done some pretty bad stuff in the past but this...” he shrugged.  “I don’t know; it just seems so... North Korean.”
Alice rolled her chair back and forth, her lips pursed in concentration.  “I don’t support what Lemlin did.  I’m pretty well anti-violence.  But I do think he was telling the truth; why would he lie?”  She smiled, looking embarrassed.  “I’ve already joined a pro-Defender rally for this Saturday.”
John snorted.  “Sounds like something my niece would do.”
“Well, she sounds pretty smart—civically minded, at least.  What do you think, John?  Did we do this or not?”
John thought for a moment.  He had seen some of the video and heard Lemlin’s testimony; it all seemed too fantastical to be true.  And when the White House made an official statement, it would of course denounce Lemlin as some sort of foreign agent.  What was it that Rachel said?  If the government made an immediate statement, it was a cover-up?  So if they’d waited this long… “He’s lying.  It’s all part of his attack on the president, to discredit him if he couldn’t kill him.”
“So I guess you’re a big government kind of guy, then.”
“No, I just can’t imagine us giving someone psychic abilities and then not exploiting it for everything its worth.”
“So you admit he really had psychic powers?”  Walter said, catching onto John's phrasing.
“I’m still having trouble believing that.”
Someone at the back of the cube retrieved the pen and began to juggle it.  “Okay, screw the rest of the video; we all watched it earlier.  White House have a statement yet?”
John turned back to his computer and ran a search.  “Nothing.  Statement from the Pope about Lemlin’s powers, though.”
Alice leaned forward.  “Do tell.”
“Let’s see.  Careful examination of scripture, consulted with many religious leaders, da-da-da-da…  Okay, basically it’s either a corrupted revelation of God’s power or a show of the adaptive powers of nature; he hasn’t decided.”  He glanced at the clock in the corner of the screen.  “Ooh, and it’s late and I forgot my lunch.  I hate to leave this conversation unfinished, but I’ve got to head out.”
Walter dropped a hand onto John's shoulder.  “First, update on that tower.”
“Yeah, sure.”  John closed the web browser and opened is SkyCrest file.  “Alright, let's walk you through this….”
The only remnant of the original Sky Crest was the Central Maintenance Core, though it now stretched upward for over a mile.  Around it, was a triple-helix spiral of colossal dodecahedrons, each containing multiple floors.  In the gaps between the outer layer of glass and the triple-helix were atriums stretching across several stories.
The shopping center that extended from one side had become moat-like, encircling the tower’s half-mile wide base.  Twelve smaller towers projected up from the pit to join the central tower as buttresses.
Walter nodded appreciatively.  “Pretty nice....”
“Is it workable?” Alice asked.
John shrugged.  “I ran stress tests.  As far as the computer’s concerned, all it needs is an underwriter.”
“Yeah...”  Walter sighed.  “Not likely to happen.”
“What's that mean?” the man behind him asked.
“It means that with a major terrorist attack on the president, the economy's going to take a nose dive, and luxury towers are out of the question.”
The other man responded, and John took the opportunity to slip out of the office.
He had walked for two blocks before he realized he wasn't particularly hungry.  He just wanted to get out of the office, to digest the events of the previous evening.
It was tempting to dismiss them as fabrications.  Psychic super-soldiers were too fantastic to be real.  To accept them at face value would be a tremendous leap of faith, one John wasn’t sure he was willing to make.  For him, the paranormal was a mixture of con men and credulous victims, the Bible was exaggerated folk-lore, and extraterrestrial life was single-celled organisms living in ponds on the moons of Jupiter.  That was life, that was normal.  If he accepted at face value what had happened, if the walls of that normalcy could be breached that much, what else could find its way through the cracks?
Possibly nothing, he realized.  Psychic super-soldiers didn’t entail… unicorns, say.  And, in all honesty, the Defenders weren't entirely unanticipated; he had seen the rumors online, the supposed legal foundation....
The government would be aware of that, too.  Maybe they were covering something, or trying to pick a fight, and just used a convenient story everyone already believed.
The sounds of a crowd on the sidewalk ahead pulled John out of his thoughts, and he looked up to see a swarm of people gathered outside an Army recruiting office, most carrying signs, and several wearing crudely printed “Defend the Defenders” t-shirts. 
One of the t-shirt wearers, a frizzy-haired  man wielding a megaphone, was in the middle of a tirade.  “—have been victims of the military-industrial complex for too long!  Who suppressed American workers in the 19th century?  Them!  Who usurped South American sovereignty in the 20th century?  Them!  Who cut the legs out from under public health care in the 21st century?  Them!”
Each shout of “Them!” brought an answering chorus from the audience.
“And now,” the man continued, “they’re hitting us where we live, screwing around with us on the genetic level!  Well, I say, ‘No more!’  No more of our children into the meat-grinder, no more soldiers sacrificed to Them!”
If the man said more, it was drowned out by fevered cheering from the crowd.  The uproar was loud enough to attract the attention of those within the office, and the cheers turned to angry boos and curses as an officer came out and began speaking to the man with the megaphone.
John had seen enough.  He was just about to continue on his way when a woman detached herself from the crowd and came to stand beside him. 
“Hell of a show, huh?” she asked.
The woman was a little shorter than John, pale and thin, with high cheekbones and short red hair.  Despite the relative warmth of the day, she was wearing a thick, dirty jacket.  Her smell caused John to take a step away.  The woman stepped closer to him again.
“So,” she said conversationally, “you can spare a dollar, maybe?”
John decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.  “Sorry, I’m not interested in donating.”
The woman laughed, a high-pitched, grating sound.  “Donate!  Hah!  No.  I’m not with them.  No, no, no, hell no.  Hah!  No man, lunch money.  I’m hungry; can you spare a dollar?  Maybe three?”
“No, sorry, I don’t carry cash.”  He turned and took a few steps.  Behind him he could hear raised voices.
“C’mon,” the woman insisted, “is that any way to treat an old friend?”
John didn’t look back.  
His indifference didn’t seem to faze her.  “C’mon, man, you seriously don’t recognize me?  It’s me, Cyd, c’mon, you gotta recognize me!”  She reached out and caught his hand.  “You gotta be shittin’ me John; you gotta be shittin’ me!”
This time John did turn around.  He stared at the woman—Cyd—trying to figure out how she had known his name.  Stolen wallet?  No, she had guessed and gotten lucky.  Had to have done.  Behind her, the crowd was closing in on the officer.
“Look, lady,” John began, trying to retrieve his hand, “I don’t know where you think you know me from—“
“From the Program, John!”  There was a crazed sheen to her eyes.  “From the Program, back when we were Defenders!”  She wasn't loud, but she was able to draw the attention of the crowd's fringe. 
“You’re crazy!” John managed to free his hand and stumbled back a few steps.
“Are you really a Defender?” someone in the crowd asked as he made his way closer to John and Cyd.
“Hell, no!” 
“Hell, yes!”  Cyd declared.  “Me and John, we were EHUDs!  I wasn’t nothing special, but John here, Allen picked him to lead the resistance!”
More people began to drift from the crowd, pulled by the siren song of Cyd’s ramblings.  John tried to walk away, but there were too many people now.  For her part, Cyd was preening under the attention and continued on with her story that John was called by God—or at least by His prophet, Allen—to destroy the hated military-industrial complex.
Seeing that the crowd was now turning itself onto a visibly uncomfortable civilian, the officer tried to refocus their attention.  When he grabbed onto the ring-leader’s shoulder, the man with the megaphone swung around and punched him in the face.  The officer clutched at his bleeding nose and stumbled away while the man with the megaphone stared in shock at his bloody knuckles.  Moments later he was tackled by several soldiers who came rushing from the office.
As quickly as the crowd had turned its attention to John, it now turned back to the chaos that had erupted in front of the office.  Some in the crowd, sensing the inevitable outcome of the fight, hurried away.  Others, among them Cyd, gleefully entered in.  Most, John included, stood in mute fascination bordering on horror.
Some part of John knew he should leave.  Unfortunately, this part of John had o motor control.  The fight was growing, and he had to dodge someone stumbling back towards him.  Through the tangle of arms and legs, John could see that one of the soldiers had been pinned and was being bludgeoned by shoes.
A hand grabbed John, and he twisted around, expecting to see Cyd again.  Instead he came face-to-face with a different woman.  She was his height, with a flat nose and straight black hair.  “This way,” she insisted, jerking her head away from the riot.
John didn’t argue; he followed when she started pulling him away.
Pedestrians all along the street were stopping to look at the commotion in front of the recruiting office, and many pressed closer to get a better look. 
John and his rescuer turned at the first cross-street they came to, and the sounds of the riot quieted behind them.  They slowed and continued on for half a block until they were more or less alone.
“Thanks,” John said, reclaiming his arm.
“Don’t mention it.”  The woman leaned against a building and took a deep breath, her face flushed from their recent sprint.  John didn't look much better.  “I saw you just standing there and figured you could use a little prompting.”  She pushed herself upright and offered John her hand.  “I’m Naomi.”
He shook her hand.  “John.”
“Yeah, I know.”
John nodded.  “She was a little loud, huh?”
Naomi imitated John's nod, and they both laughed.
“Jesus.”  John pushed his glasses up on his head and rubbed at his eyes.  “An actual riot.  I—I never thought I'd see that in this day and age, right in the middle of the city.”
Naomi shrugged.  “People are people, I guess.”
“Yeah, but all this over something that might not be true?”
Naomi chuckled and shook her head.  “Not a believer, huh?”
“I just—I mean, it's a lot to take in, conspiracy theories aside, and all we have is video, which can be—” He was cut off by a sudden sharp gesture from Naomi.
“You hear that?”
As soon as she finished talking, he heard.  The sounds of the riot, of yelling, of glass shattering and large objects being thrown about, was rising in intensity.
He nodded.  “We should get out of here.  Hey, I'll walk you home, okay, or at least the nearest train station?”
“No, I'm up from D.C. for business, and my hotel's clear on the other side of town.”
“What were you doing over here, then?”
She shrugged.  “Sightseeing.”
“Listen, we at least need to get inside somewhere and wait this out.”  He gestured back to the street corner, where a steady stream of people was running in and out of the fray.  “There's a pretty nice bar and grill about a mile from here, should be safe enough.”
Naomi nodded, and John led her at a brisk pace away from the chaos.
They passed under the outdated neon sign of The Gilbert Wallace some twenty minutes later, and were surprised to see that it was almost deserted.
“Lunch crowd's out,” the hostess explained, “and most people don't want to get caught up in the riot.”
“But you're still open?” John asked.
The hostess nodded and ushered them inside the brick-lined main dining hall.  The televisions over the bar all showed a live feed from the riot.  The hostess led them to a large table near the corner, and John had just sat down when he heard a woman call his name.  His stomach lurched as he flashed back on Cyd, and lurched again when he saw the speaker rise from her table and walk over to him.
“Oh, my God, it's really you.”  It was Lucy.
John swallowed, feeling the cracks in his wall of normalcy open just a bit wider.
She looked the same as he had seen her the night he called—the only way he remembered her looking—but there were signs of stress, a few extra wrinkles around her eyes.
He looked past her to the table she had just left.  A man sat there, wearing an overlarge police uniform, glaring murder at John.
A sharp pressure bit into John's arm.  “Ow.”
Naomi released her sudden grip, but deep fingernail marks remained. 
Lucy had reached the table and was now staring at him, chewing her upper lip.  “I...  I didn't think it was real.  The phone call, I mean.  It was just so....”  Her eyes lost focus for a moment, then snapped around, looking at Naomi, then back to John, and finally off to the side, seeking her companion.  She grimaced.  “I'm sorry about that.  I just, wow, it's just been so crazy, and I really wasn't expecting to see you again—”  She stopped again, took a deep breath, and thrust out her hand to Naomi.  “Hi!  I'm Lucy, I, uh, used to know John here.”
Naomi accepted the hand.  “I just met him.”
“Really?”  Lucy was now conspicuously not looking at John.  She chuckled nervously and gestured back at the table she had left.  “Where are my manners?  Please, join us!”
John didn't want to.  It was weird enough knowing about Lucy, and he had come to terms with his missing past.  He didn't want her to be a part of his present.  And then there was her boyfriend....  John looked back at the man, and found him smiling good-naturedly.
The man's sudden shift in temperament seemed to be having an effect on Naomi.  “Can't say no to hospitality,” she said, smiling.  She stood and walked with Lucy back to the inhabited table.
When John joined them a moment later, introductions were under way.  “Shaun this is...  Sorry, what was your name again?”
“Right.  This is Naomi.  Naomi, this is my fiancĂ©, Shaun.”
Shaun nodded, his mouth full and chewing furiously.
“And this is John, my, uh... ex, I guess.”
Shaun swallowed and nodded.  “The dead guy.”
John's stomach clenched.  He was offended that this man, this stranger, had  trivialized the defining event of his life. 
Why? he thought.  I don't remember it, I don't even think about it all that often.  Why is this rubbing me wrong?
“So you're a cop?” Naomi asked, pulling out a chair and sitting.  “You planning on doing anything in the riot?”
Lucy sighed.  “Awful, isn't it?  As soon as word came on the news, everyone pretty much cleared out of here.”
“We saw it first hand,” John said.  “That's how I met Naomi.”
“I'm not getting involved until I'm asked to,” Shaun answered, ignoring John and sending another jab into his bruised ego.  “Extra cops on scene is just more fuel on the fire.”
Naomi nodded and winked, leaving John with the sensation that he had missed something.
They tried small talk for a few minutes, then fell silent and turned their attention to the televisions.  The riot had grown, blocking traffic and turning into a looting spree around the edges.  Police were still trying for containment, but several officers had been attacked and brought down by rioters.
The absolute focus of everyone in the room was broken when Shaun's mobile began to buzz.  He answered, had a hushed conversation, disconnected, and stood.  “I'm off.  They need reinforcement, and they're refusing to call in National Guard.”
Lucy jumped to her feet and hugged him.
Shaun stood board-stiff.  “Don't stay here.  It's safe for now, but if this spreads, the bar's a perfect target for looters.  Get home, lock everything you can; gun’s on the second shelf up in the closet.  Stay away from the windows.”  He pulled away from Lucy and strode to the door, ignoring the nervous looks from the wait staff.
John noticed that in the moments after Shaun's instructions, Lucy looked dazed.  After he was gone, though, she shook her head and seemed to notice her two remaining companions.  “I'm sorry, I, uh, I have to go.”  She grabbed her purse and hurried out the door. 
Now alone, John looked at Naomi and noticed for the first time how uncomfortable she appeared.  “I'm really sorry about that.  I didn't mean to drag you into my personal life—”
She held up a hand and shook her head.  “It's okay.  I knew a Shaun once.  He was a real asshole.  Just... deja vu, I guess.”
John laughed.  “Sounds like this one, judging by my previous run-in with him.”
“I'm guessing Lucy didn't know about any earlier meetings.”
The hostess approached them.  “Excuse me?  We're going to close.  You want anything before you go?  No charge.”
John shook his head.  “I'm good.”  No matter what he believed about the Defenders, there was no denying the impact they were already having.  Honest-to-God riots, in the middle of the city.  That somehow seemed less real to him than the possibility of super-soldiers.
“I guess I'd better head out, too,” Naomi said.
“Can you get back to your hotel?”
She shrugged.  “This'll kill traffic for at least a couple of days.  I'll get a new room in the opposite direction; I doubt corporate will begrudge me a second room, all things considered.”
“And who knows?  Maybe I'll be wrong and this whole thing will clear up on its own.”

The riot had grown to cover more than two square miles by the time Shaun arrived.  He stood with a knot of onlookers who gathered at the edges of the riot, alternately held back by police and by simple fear of death.  Sometimes an onlooker would get brave and try to jump into the melee, only to be brought down by one of the officers trying to contain the violence.  Soon they were beyond the edges of the riot, bruised and handcuffed.
The city's jails would be full tonight.
Shaun worked his way to a nearby police officers and showed his badge.  “Let me through.”
The officer let out a manic chuckle.  “Good, we’ve needed back-up.  Just catch anyone who tries to get in there!  Anyone who wants out can go!”
“I’m here to fight, not to fuck around.”
Shaun opened his mouth to respond, then caught movement from the corner of his eye; someone was using the distraction to get involved.  Shaun shot out an arm and grabbed the newcomer, swung the man’s head into his outstretched fist, then let him fall. 
“I’m here to end this.”  He stared into the officer’s eyes.
After a moment, she frowned and moved aside.  “At least grab some armor.”
“Don’t need it.  Won’t say no to your nightstick, though.”
The officer sighed and surrendered her weapon.  “Stay safe.”
Shaun was already gone.  He waded out into the chaos, subconsciously feeling the bodies moving around him, police and civilian caught up in a perverse dance, each participant moving to destroy their partner.  He pulled out his own nightstick, swung both of them, getting his mind ready for what lay ahead.
A curse rang out behind him and he went low, thrusting one arm back, feeling someone crumple over the end of the borrowed nightstick.  He came up, around, swinging at his assailant’s head.  One down, a thousand to go.
Someone must have seen Shaun’s attacker go down, for another was on him already.  Shaun smiled wolfishly, feeling his heart race and his mind go black.  This was what he lived for.  Before he could ever hope to know what happened—if he even wanted to—his body was moving, whirling its weapons through the air, striking once, twice, again, again, again.  Six down.
Shaun continued swirling, continued striking.  Each strike landed true: point of the chin, base of the skull, side of the head, kidney, solar plexus, groin.  As the injured and unconscious began to gather around him, the police who could see him rallied and struck back at the wild civilians who tormented them.  Inhibitions vanished, fear and professionalism replaced by ferocity and bloodlust.
After some time—seconds?  minutes?  hours?—Shaun realized he was stretching farther and farther for new enemies, new victims.  His mind snapped back to the present, and he saw civilians running, screaming, surging—away.  The dance had ended, those who had once led now fleeing from the floor.
Police stood still, not chasing their vanquished enemies.  They panted, eyes wide behind armored visors.  Shaun knew that, whatever they might say afterwards, they had enjoyed what had been done here today.
He certainly had.
This little victory, the disengagement of these few combatants, was enough to end the riot.  As these civilians fled, they spread panic, weakened resolve, brought the rest down with them.  Within a matter of minutes, the area had all but cleared out and the few who remained were rounded up and arrested.
Finally, a collective sigh went up from those who still stood, who had defended the peace.
Shaun stood apart, glaring down at his feet, willing them to dance once more, to  return to the blackness that enveloped him.
A hand touched his shoulder and he swung around, feeling the adrenaline surging again—
“Hey, calm down!  It’s over!”  It was her, the officer he had taken the nightstick from.  “You did a good job here.”
Shaun grunted and returned the nightstick.
He began to walk away, no destination in mind.  He just needed to do something to calm down.
Behind him were footsteps.
A reporter caught up to him, trailing a camera man.  “Excuse me!  Sir!  Hi, saw what you did back there; it was great.  Mind if I get an interview?”
Shaun stopped, every nerve alert.  This wasn’t like fighting, wasn’t something pure and simple.  But it could be…interesting.
“Sure.”  He smiled.  “What do you want me to say?” 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Following Lemlin’s death, Edgar found himself being carried outside by rescue workers operating EHUD suits.  The part of him that wasn’t locked down with shock was proud that he had licensed the suit for rescue purposes, but that part fell silent as he rose over the tables and saw the entirety of the night's carnage.
The floor was rutted in places, with blood pooling and congealing in the depressions.  All around were bodies, some moving... most not.  He saw the president in the arms of another EHUD, surrounded by agents, being hustled through the shattered main door to parts unknown.
Edgar's shock slipped away long enough for him to remember Amanda, to wonder where she was.  He needed to find her, but was having trouble moving on his own. 
As he was carried through the door he spotted Mistlethwakey overseeing the EHUDs as they retrieved Lemlin’s body and removed the incriminating little tubes of the scramblers.
As if he could sense Edgar’s gaze on him, the General looked up and flashed a quick smile.
Edgar passed out then.  He woke up in a tent, surrounded once more by screams and whimpers, but also by people in mint-green jumpsuits.  One of them approached him and began poking at his forehead.
Edgar batted the hand away.  “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’ve got to stop the bleeding, sir.”
“What bleeding?”  Edgar reached up and winced as he touched the deep gash on his forehead.  He didn’t remember receiving it, but he knew that the entirety of the night's events would take some time to process.
“Where’s my wife?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.  Please keep still.”
The medic jabbed some kind of antiseptic gel into the gash.  It burned, and Edgar pulled away, hissing.  “Shit!  Will you stop that?  I’m fine!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the medic said, still jabbing at the gash, not taking his eyes from his work, “but if these aren’t seen to these will become infected.”
Edgar still tried to step away, but the medic's grip on his shoulder was too tight.  “Don’t you have someone worse off you can help?”
“No, sir, there’re plenty of us for everyone.”  He let go of Edgar's shoulder and gripped his forehead, doing his best to hold the edges of the gash together.  He applied a thick gel to the wound with his other hand, then pressed a bandage onto his forehead.  “And that should do it.  Just try to—hey!”  The medic flailed his arms and tried to keep his balance as Edgar pushed past him and out of the little tent they occupied.
Outside the tent was a disaster.  Nearly a hundred booths covered the White House lawn, each one swarming with medical staff, injured party guests, and soldiers.  So many soldiers. 
He set out in search of Amanda, picking a direction at random and following it.
He passed near the White House’s outer fence and noticed, far down the street, a veritable wall of humanity.  Tourists, reporters, the rabble, kept at bay by a thin line of police in riot gear; thank God for that.
Edgar continued searching, growing more concerned as he reached the last of the tents, afraid that Amanda may be among the white-shrouded figures that continued to be brought out of the booths at a steady pace.
The tent flap pushed aside as a medic left the booth and—there!  A quick flash of a red dress.  Edgar pushed inside and rushed to Amanda.  “Oh my God, I thought you were dead.”
She looked up at him from the cot she sat on, then returned to her previous pose.
“Hello?  You in there?”
She swallowed and took a deep breath.  “Ethan…”
Edgar sighed in relief; she seemed to be okay.  “He’s at home, he’s fine—you know what, that’s not important.  You’re fine, right?”
“Ethan… I want Ethan.”
A medic approached them.  “Sir?  Do you know this woman?”
“Yes, she’s my wife.  Why?”
“I haven’t gotten any responses from her.”
Edgar opened his mouth to speak but the medic cut him off.
“There’s nothing wrong with her, as far as I can tell.  She’s just in shock.”
Edgar crouched down next to Amanda.  “Amanda?  Honey?  Are you okay?
He gripped her shoulders and forced her to look him in the eyes.  “He’s fine, he’s at home safe—“
“Ethan!” Amanda screamed, shaking her hands.
Edgar released her shoulders and grabbed her wrists.  “Shh, no, don’t worry, it’s okay—“
“Ethan!” she screamed again, then began to sob. 
“Okay, okay, we’re going home now, we’ll go get Ethan.”
Amanda took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.
“Okay, good?”  Edgar wrapped his arm around her and helped her stand.  She continued nodding as they walked out of the tent.
The medic followed them.  “I’d suggest getting her in to see a doctor; tonight, if possible, but definitely tomorrow.”
“Okay, yeah.  Hey, do you know if the valet service is still running?”
“No idea.”
“Ethan…” Amanda interjected.
They walked together for a few minutes, moving at a glacial pace, heading in a roundabout manner towards the valet pickup.  Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, Edgar felt shock taking hold, unpleasant memories assaulting him in a steady rush.  Just the thought of standing up to Lemlin as he had done sent him into a shivering fit.  He could see himself spread on the floor; his head burst open, Amanda off somewhere else, afraid, dying—
He squeezed her hand, and was reassured when she squeezed in return.
They were within sight of the abandoned valet station when Edgar heard the opening bars of “Hail to the Chief” emanating from his pocket.  He waited it out, letting the music fall silent.  It started again, and Edgar felt a pang of guilt.  Something unprecedented had happened—no, other pictures flashed across his memory—something almost unprecedented had happened, and Isaac would need advice on what to do next.
As he moved to reach into his jacket pocket, he again felt a squeeze from Amanda, reminding him that he had already done his duty for the president tonight.  How long until Ethan found out about the night's events?
The music continued.
He could still consult from home...
Ignoring the reproachful gaze from Amanda's dead eyes, he pulled out his mobile and clicked it open.  “Hello?”
“Edgar?”  Not the president: Ellie, his chief of staff.  “Good.  We, uh… we weren’t sure you were alive.”
There was no good answer to that.
“Well… glad you’re still alive.”
“Me too.”  Neither spoke for several long moments.  Edgar cleared his throat.  “Look, unless this is important, I’ve got to get Amanda home and—“
“No, no, no.”  There was a hint of hysteria in the Ellie's voice.  “The whole cabinet’s needed.  Isaac wants this thing contained and we have to figure this out and—”
“I can’t.”  Edgar looked down at Amanda.
“Ethan…” Amanda muttered.
He squeezed her hand and smiled.
“Edgar.  This is important.  This is the whole fucking country here.”  Yes, there was definitely hysteria there.
But there was also truth.  The needs of an entire country did seem to be more important than the needs of his family.  And if the country couldn't be sorted out, if society was collapsing around his ears, what good could he do for his family?
A quiet voice reminded him that he was involved in collapsing that society...
“I need someone to get Amanda home.  We’re at the valet post now.”
“I’ll send someone.”
Before Edgar could even end the call, Amanda had released his hand and taken a step away.
“Mandy, please...
“Don’t you fucking leave me, you fucking bastard,” she hissed, her eyes wide and her shoulders quivering.  “Don't you dare leave us now...”
“Amanda, I have to go now.  I know it’s hard but—”
“Fuck you.”
Edgar stared at her, completely unsure of what to do next.
Their stare-down was interrupted by the clatter of EHUD suits moving near them.  “Mr. Secretary?” a modulated voice asked.
Edgar turned to see two armored soldiers standing behind him.  “I need to get a car, or a cab or something to get her home—”
“No!” Amanda yelled.  “No, no, no, no, no...”
Edgar turned back to her and saw his wife on her knees, curled forward, sobbing.  His leg started twitching in sympathy, his whole body succumbing to whatever emotions were buried under the shock.
“What's the address, sir?”
The emotion passed, and Edgar was back in control.  “We're, uh, we're on the web...”
“Good.”  Edgar nodded, then turned  towards the White house.  He took a few steps, stopped, and turned back to Amanda.  “Mandy?  I still love you.  You know that.  I’m not leaving you.”
Amanda fought her way to her feet and turned her back on her husband.
Edgar nodded again, and walked away.  Behind him, he could hear the soldiers talking, could hear them comforting his wife, doing the job he was meant to do.

Most of the cabinet was gathered when Edgar arrived in the Oval Office.  Some of them looked up as he entered, the fear on their faces transforming into reverence.  They had seen his confrontation with Lemlin.
“Good,” Isaac said, not looking up from where he sat behind his desk.  “Everyone’s here; let’s start.”
Edgar gestured at all the empty seats scattered around the room.  “Where’s everyone else, then?”  In his mind, more white shrouded figures were being brought out of the tents.
There was a burst of nervous giggling from Eli Rosencrantz, the press secretary.  He pulled his tie out from under his jacket and pointed to a brown stain.  “That’s the treasurer!”  He laughed again, then curled in on himself and began to sob.
“Sit down,” Isaac muttered.  “We have a lot to do.  I just want to go to sleep, but we’ve got shit to do.”
Edgar picked out a chair and sat.  He took a quick census of who was there.  Assuming the speaker and the president pro tempore were still alive, Edgar was now fourth in line.  A shudder moved across his body as he recognized the nature of the calculation he had just made.
Movement in a corner of the room caught his eye and he saw Mistlethwakey standing by the door.  He wore only slacks and an undershirt, his bare arms mottled with reddish stains.
“Bob,” the president said.  “What happened out there?”
Mistlethwakey moved further into the room and slumped into a chair.  “Well, he was definitely one of the Defenders—“
“Goddamn it!”  Isaac slammed his fist down on the desk and glared at the General.  “You think I don’t know that?  This is the second time a Defender’s gone rogue on us, and don’t you dare give me that ‘it somehow failed’ shit!  Someone is deliberately trying to bring this whole thing crashing down on us!”
All eyes turned to Mistlethwakey.
He shrugged.  “It’s possible.” 
Julia Telk, leaned forward.  “What aren’t you telling us, Bob?”
This couldn’t be happening.  Edgar tried to take in Mistlethwakey, usually so calm and collected, now looking hunted.  His stomach clenched.  Had Bob involved Edgar in this plot only to turn on him, let him take the blame for what had happened tonight?
“Bob?” the president prompted.
Mistlethwakey sighed.  “Okay, yeah, there... there might be the possibility of sabotage.”
There was a collective groan from everyone except Edgar and Eli.  Eli continued to giggle to himself; Edgar was calm.  Allen.  Mistlethwakey was finally going to play Allen.
“Details, Bob,” the vice president prompted.
Mistlethwakey folded his hands in his lap and stared pointedly at the VP.  “Shortly before we began the release phase there were, ah, complications.  One of our scrubbers expressed reservations about what he was tasked with doing.”
“Christ,” someone muttered.
Images of the scrubber’s “reservations” flashed through Edgar's mind.  It looked something like what had happened tonight...
“You all right?” Julia asked.
Edgar shuddered and nodded.  “I just felt, uh, I thought I was going to—“
“Yeah.”  It was clear from her tone that Julia had had her own struggles with nausea that night.
The VP shifted in her seat and tapped the table to refocus the room’s attention.  “Names, Bob.”
“Captain Fendleton.”
“What?”  The president looked up, eyes wide with surprise.  “Allen?  No.  He was a good soldier.  Hell, the whole program was his idea in the first place.”
Mistlethwakey shrugged.  “I guess he didn’t like the way we implemented his ideas.  Anyway, we don’t know if it was actually him.”
Isaac rolled his eyes.  “Okay, well, he’s a lead, anyway.  Get him in here and let’s ask him.”
Again, Mistlethwakey seemed evasive.
Isaac sighed and buried his face in his hands.  “What now?”
“Allen’s dead.  Killed himself about a year ago, shortly after we finished the scrubbing.  Simple overdose.  I guess his conscience got in the way.”
The president rounded on Edgar.  “Why am I the last one to hear about this, hmm?”
Edgar didn't know what Mistlethwakey's line was on this, but he jumped in as best he could, hoping he could calm the president as much as possible.  “This is the first I’ve heard, too.  I only know as much as Bob tells me.  If he chooses to keep this secret, I can’t tell you about it.”
The General snorted and rubbed his arms.  “Nice to see I'm the scapegoat in all this.”
“Fuck scapegoat.”  An idea was beginning to form.  Mistlethwakey had said he had set everything up, and all Edgar had to do was sit back and reap the benefits.  If that were true, then Mistlethwakey was a loose end, and now was the perfect chance to eliminate him. 
Edgar pointed an accusing finger at the general.  “Chuskus was a fluke, maybe, but this?  No, this is too big a problem.  If you suspected this, or had intel that this was possible, you should have told us.”
The president sat up.  “You’re saying Chuskus wasn’t an accident?”
“No, I don’t think she was just an accident.  I think she was a direct consequence of Allen's 'reservations', and that what happened tonight could have been avoided had we known about Fendleton's plans.”  He paused and rubbed his chin.  “I also think that something like tonight could—will happen again.”
With a word-weary sigh, the president slumped deeper into his chair and rubbed his eyes.  “What do we do?  Anyone got suggestions?”
Mistlethwakey cleared his throat.
“Allen only scrubbed half of them, but for all we know he could have contaminated the whole bunch.  The only option is to scrap the program and collect the Defenders.”
The president made no reply, and Mistlethwakey continued.
“It won’t be easy, either.  We can assume that Allen altered their programming, so they won’t return to us with open arms and innocent intentions.  We have to actively consider them as all rogue.”
Silence stretched across the room for almost a minute.  “Get out.”
“No sir, I’m serious.  The Defenders are too big of a—“
Everyone flinched back from the president as he jerked upright and slammed his open palms down on the table.  “Get out!  Get the fuck out of this office right now!  Go!”
Mistlethwakey nodded, pried himself from his chair, and left.  Edgar was sure this was the first time he had seen the General obey a direct order. 
“Edgar.”  Isaac had returned to his slumped posture.  “What do we do?”
“You mean besides hang Bob out to dry?”
That earned Edgar a chuckle.  “Much as I would like to… no, he’s more dangerous against us than with us.  The minute we out him, he starts spilling everything he has on us.  So,” he looked up at Edgar, “what do we do?”
Edgar took a deep breath.  “Only one thing we can do.  We abandon the program.  Drop pretenses and try to make peace with the Defenders.  Aside from that, the best we can do is prepare for war and hope the public doesn’t start demanding blood.  Either way ends bad.”
“No.”  Isaac shook his head and patted the desk.  “No.  We can’t kill this.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?  You’ve been trying for a reason to kill this thing for—“
“The time to kill it was before, back when it was a secret.  Now the people know, or at least have reason to doubt us, and anything we do to acknowledge the program will just be an acknowledgment of guilt.”
“So you just want us to walk around with our heads up our asses and wait for the next time a rogue Defender tries to off you?”
“Next time we’ll be ready.  Next time, we’ll have security, next time we’ll have the scramblers—“
“Yeah, no, that won’t work.  See, we had the scramblers this time, and we used them.  The scramblers—which are specifically designed as Defender deterrents—are now public knowledge.  The public knows that we know--knew--and the program’s blown.  We can’t pretend the cat isn’t out of the bag on this one.”
Isaac glared at him.  “We can and we will.  We acknowledge nothing Lemlin said, we jump on top of the story, and we ride this out as long as we can.  We stay alive, and no one goes to jail.  Agreed?”
Edgar threw his hands up and slumped back in his chair.  “This is stupid.  I can’t believe you’re doing something this stupid.”
Julia leaned forward and raised her hand fractionally.  “There are ways to fix this without going public.  We just reprogram the rest of them, make sure they stay low.  Get what’s-his-name, the other scrubber, involved.”
Before she finished, Edgar began shaking his head.  “He’d have to be in close.  And we don't know which of them will recognize him and go rogue on us.  I’ll say it again: we can’t do this thing on the sly.  It.  Is.  Over.”
The president ignored him.  “Eli, time for you to earn your paycheck.”
At the far end of the room, Eli was still engrossed in his silent sobs.
Eli looked up and tried to smile.
“We need you, okay?  We need a story for Lemlin, alright?”
Eli thought for a moment, then nodded.  “Okay, yeah, he’s, um, he’s…”
The room grew silent as Eli thought and Edgar fumed. 
The silence was broken when the vice president gasped and jumped out of her seat.  “We’re in the White House.”
All eyes focused on her. 
“Someone just tried to kill you in the White House, and we’re still here, in the goddamn Oval Office.”
“Damn straight.”  Isaac tapped a quick beat on the table and struck a proud pose.  “The SS tried to evacuate me, but I’m not hiding after this.  No, the president doesn’t go skulking off and hiding after some nut tries to kill him!”
“Shit.”  The VP looked around in confusion.  “You’re—you’re crazy, Isaac.  You can’t do this.  You’re here at ground zero with who knows how many Defenders out there and you refuse to take the only sensible course of action.”  She shook her head and blinked several times.  “I didn’t sign up for this.  I—I—“  She didn’t finish her sentence, but everyone knew what she was thinking about.  “I’m done.  I hereby resign, whatever.”
“Hey, where are you going?  You can’t just leave!”
She ignored him and walked out the door.
At least two down.  Edgar swallowed, and wondered if he should follow her.
The president snorted and gestured in the former vice-president’s direction.  “We don’t need her anyway.  Don’t need pessimism, don’t need undermining.”  He nodded to himself.  “It won’t be pretty, but we can ride this out.”
There was somber head-nodding around the room.
“You know what?  Fuck you.”  Edgar stood.  “You all didn't see him, alright?  You didn't see him like I did.  He was pissed off, and he was not going quietly.  We got lucky.  What happens when ten of them come together, huh?  I'd think a little harder about keeping up the charade before you have to face real power.  The only way any of us stay alive at this point is if they let us.”  His speech done, he followed the former Vice President out.
“Where are you going?”  Isaac’s icy voice stopped Edgar at the door.
“Home.  Amanda’s worried, it’s late, and there’s nothing I can do tonight.”  He turned back to the president.  “Tomorrow… tomorrow I’ll be here to do the best I can to get you through this shit-storm.  You may not listen to me, but I’ll try my best.”
Isaac nodded, but in no other way acknowledged Edgar’s presence.
Outside the office the corridor was bright, and a frail old man in his undershirt sat under a painting of a horse.  He rose and strode over to Edgar, his lithe movement belying his age.
“You did good in there.  Said what needed to be said.  Just got off the phone with head of security; they’ve pieced together the president pro tempore; three down.”  He reached to pat Edgar on the shoulder.
Edgar ducked the arm, grabbed the front of Mistlethwakey's shirt, and slammed him into the wall.  “Listen,” he hissed, “I'll do it, I'll stick with your Q-bomb shit, but we're through, you hear me?  No more manipulating me, no more dropping little surprises like Lemlin on my family, alright?  You'll get what you want, but leave me the hell alone!”  He released the General and Mistlethwakey slid down until he was standing on his own. 
“Whatever you say.”  He turned and strode away.
Edgar didn't notice.  All he saw was the smile Mistlethwakey wore throughout their whole confrontation...